Album Review: Emma Ruth Rundle - Engine of Hell
And this is a story I tell often1, now, when I talk about Emma Ruth Rundle—one, because I find it to be rather funny, and more importantly, two, because I find it to be incredibly accurate.
Within the first few months of this year, the writer and poet Hanif Abdurraqib wrote a piece about “The Valley”—the closing track on May Our Chambers Be Full, a collaborative album between Rundle and the “sludge metal” band Thou. As he begins setting up the piece, before he gets into why “The Valley” was one of his favorite songs of 2020, he recalls a time he played Rundle’s 2014 release, Some Heavy Ocean for a friend, and how that friend, while listening, commented, “I like that everything she sings sounds like a warning or a threat.”
And if you think about it, Aburraqib’s friend was right. This doesn’t mean that every song from Emma Ruth Rundle is written or performed out of malice; no—she simply writes, sings, and plays from a place of true intent.
Depending on which music news outlet you read about it in, or how you choose to view her canonical works, Engine of Hell is Rundle’s the fourth “proper” full-length, but, like, the fifth or sixth released under her own name within a sprawling body of work2. Recorded at the tail end of 2020, to call Engine of Hell a “pandemic record,” or a “divorce record,” is doing it a disservice by selling it dramatically short; in a sense, it is both of those things— a deep, stark reflection on the last two years of uncertainty and isolation, and the dissolution of her marriage to musician Evan Patterson.
More than that, Engine of Hell, a suite of eight songs connected by Rundle’s skeletal arranging, is an unflinching and harrowing journey of the self.
The timeline is, perhaps intentionally, a little murky and difficult to follow based on what Rundle has revealed in interviews for Engine of Hell’s press cycle—2020 began with her retreating to Wales, where portions of the album were written. In a long profile from the metal-focused magazine Kerrang!, Rundle states she had lost touch with who she was, and in the early months of the pandemic, began to spiral into a “dark, weird, bad place,” with excessive alcohol and drug use. Now in therapy as well as a 12-step program to help guide her sobriety, Rundle, in the same interview, reveals she also spent a little over a week in a mental hospital.
“I was not doing well, and I think it translates, but it was magical—like a ritual, or like an exorcism,” she is quoted as saying. “I am not the same person I was a year go, and I totally credit being able to make this record with that.”
A concept that I have found myself writing about, and a analytical device I use maybe more often than I should, is the balance between tension and release within music3—of a song, or the album as a whole, and there are instances when there is no balance to speak of; it’s a lot of one, and little, if any, of the other.
And I feel like it’s very apparent from the moment it begins, but Engine of Hell, even with its sparse instrumentation, is an album built around a heightened sense of tension. And when it ends, there is no “release” in the more traditional sense of the notion—no big, explosive, noisy moment of catharsis. However, because of just how personal the songwriting is, it is a viscerally cathartic record—one where you are holding your breath until the final notes of “In My Afterlife” fade out, allowing yourself to then let out an enormous exhalation. It’s an album where there is no clear resolve by the time it ends, and due to the emotionally charged places it drags you, it leaves the you with more questions than answers, and asks that you sit in and acknowledge whatever uncomfortable4 feelings surfaced.
I don’t do this as much anymore, but there was a time, a number of years ago, when I was more apt to try and make musical suggestions, or recommendations, to people—and I can recall shortly after Rundle’s last solo outing was released, 2018’s excellent On Dark Horses, I had encouraged the person who was my boss at the time to take a listen.
The impression I got was that she might have not even made it through the first song, and when I asked her thoughts on the record, she told me she didn’t care for it, and that the guitars were “too loud.”
I wouldn’t go as far as to call Engine of Hell the inverse of On Dark Horses, but it is an album that finds Rundle pushing herself into sonic territory she hasn’t previously explored—across the eight songs featured, the guitar rarely makes an appearance, and when it does, it is no longer the crunchy, distended, torrential electric guitar she has wielded in the past. Engine of Hell features Rundle playing the acoustic guitar, but it also marks her return to the piano—an instrument she admittedly abandoned when she was in her early 20s.
In a long interview with Echoes and Dust, published around three weeks prior to the release of Engine of Hell, Rundle name checks Nick Drake’s iconic, final album, Pink Moon, the work of Tori Amos, and the idiosyncratic German folk artist Sibyl Baier’s Colour Green5 as influences or reference points to how the record was sonically shaped, and from the dramatic, slow motion opening track, “Return,” you can hear the homage to Tori Amos immediately.
“Return” is not exactly Engine of Hell’s thesis statement, but it does set the tone for the other seven songs that follow—in terms of the personal depths Rundle is going to pull us down through with her lyricism, the skeletal, gorgeous arranging and instrumentation, and the absolutely astonishing places she challenges her voice to go to.
Singing in both a fragile, whispery upper register that sounds as if it might shatter at any moment, then letting her voice drop back down, at times without any notice, to the range listeners might be more familiar with—a range where, indeed, everything she sings sounds like a warning or a threat—“Return” unfolds slowly and deliberately, with Rundle’s fingers caressing the keys of the piano and not so much creating a song with a steady rhythm, but something with a swaying, swooning momentum, at times dramatically punctuating her dynamic vocal delivery.
“Return” is presented not as a threat, or a warning, but there is a foreboding sense she effortlessly casts with just using the piano and her voice—the lyrics here are cloaked heavily in dreamy-like ambiguity, like a poem that is slowly forming against the piano notes beneath it. And there is a pleading, and questioning, in what she sings—“All things lost in their own time—where have you gone to? Return to me…return again.”
Rundle continues to work within this Tori Amos inspired tone elsewhere across Engine of Hell, specifically on “Body,” and the first track from the album’s second side, “Dancing Man.”
Featuring a small guest appearance from regular collaborator and bandmate Troy Zeigler, who provides unsettling additional vocals underneath Rundle’s own during the refrain, “Body,” overflows with mournful, pensive, and regretful imagery, and much like “Return,” moves freely, working itself back and forth between three different musical ideas that, when transitioning from one to the other, often startlingly shifts the tone—pulling it further into darkness, and dissonance that is never really resolved.
“I hear you say ‘You know my arms are always around you,’” Rundle recalls at the end of each verse, before altering the line as the song ends—“I can’t feel you near my side…I can’t feel your arms around me anymore.” And the refrain, repeated like a slow, ominous mantra—“We’re moving the body now,” or, later on, “I’m moving my body now,” finds Rundle almost whispering the phrases with Zeigler’s low, eerie voice rumbling in unison under her own.
As deliberately measured in how it is performed, but a little more musically structured, is “Dancing Man,” the smoldering track that begins Engine of Hell’s second half. Built around gentle, then very dramatic, use of the piano, Rundle, as she does on “Return,” uses her vocal range thoughtfully, pushing it higher into a place that is breathier and more delicate—like a whispered secret that is on the verge of growing louder than it should be.
Engine of Hell, as a whole, is a breathtaking experience, but there is a specific musical moment6 in “Dancing Man” that I feel the weight of every time I listen, and it’s when she quickly shifts from the song’s verses into its chorus, leaning onto the keys of the piano with a lot more intent, and lets her voice drop down to practically sneer the phrase, “All I’ve known of love.”
And it is on “Dancing Man,” as well as the album’s second single, “Blooms of Oblivion,” and the closing piece, “In My Afterlife,” where, even in her effort to literally play against type by making a quiet, inward-focused record, there are places in her songwriting where you can still hear her intention for fury, as stifled as it might be in this context. There is something threatening, or menacing, about the way she sings, through what sounds like gritted teeth, “All I’ve known of love,” and follows it with wordless singing and shuddering to get her through to the next line.
In “Blooms of Oblivion,” that placeholder for fury comes in the way she plucks at the down tuned strings on her acoustic guitar, strumming them in ominous chords through the song’s verses before precisely and quickly pulling a sound of them one at a time in the instrumental break that occurs between the first and second half of the song—the kind of dexterous playing, and the kind of little riff that, the more you listen, can’t help but wonder what it might sound like coming from a heavy, distorted electric guitar.
It should be obvious, even without hearing one note of Engine of Hell, but just knowing the easiest way to describe it is as a “an album about divorce, sobriety, and isolation,” that there is little light, if any, across the album’s eight songs. Rundle has written material that casts a very long, very bleak shadow, but perhaps one of the darkest songs, at least lyrically, is “Blooms of Oblivion.”
Built with a little more structure thanks to the overdubbing of her piano and guitar, and the addition of a haunting cello, “Blooms” probably has the “fullest” sounding arranging when compared to any of the other songs in this set—and with an album such as this, there is really no need for a “hook,” or some kind of infectious melody to be written into the material, though perhaps it is the more robust instrumentation, or perhaps it is the aforementioned guitar riff, but if a song off of Engines of Hell is going to get stuck in your head, it might be “Blooms of Oblivion.”
Lyrically, as unabashedly personal as Rundle gets across each song, her honest reflections are dressed up in vague phrase turns, and fragments of evocative imagery.
The ambiguity, as she explains in her interview with Kerrang!, is intentional.
“I wanted to say exactly what I said. It reveals enough, but it obscures just enough that I’m not calling anyone out, or necessarily including anyone else in my story in a way that could put them, or their memory, into a public sphere in a disrespectful way,” she says of the specific line in question from the song, “Down at the methadone clinic we waited, hoping to take home your cure.”
“But I’m telling my own story in an honest manner. It’s pretty explicit. It’s pretty intense thing to say, but it happened and it’s true. It’s part of life, and I think it’s okay to discuss ugliness.”
For as often as I do this, I am actually somewhat remiss to call something a “headphone record.”
Engine of Hell, for as full and lush as it sounds coming from the turntable, is an intimate album, both literally and figuratively—a hushed, late night conversation between two close friends. And the deeper I swim out into this record, and the more time I spend with it from beginning to end, here are sonic details that one might miss when not experiencing it as closely as possible.
The most apparent example of Rundle’s meticulous attention to the sonic detail of the album comes from the closing piece on the album’s first side, “The Company,” which, similarly to “Blooms of Oblivion,” is one of Engine’s bleakest lyrically.
Engine of Hell was produced and engineered with Sonny Diperri, and Rundle explained in a conversation with mxdwn that while he was downstairs in a control room, she was in a different part of the studio by herself, playing. “It was eerie and strange,” she said. “But exactly what I needed.”
That eerie, strange feeling comes across in “The Company,” where the isolated method of recording is the most audible. Across the album, there is a very tangible closeness to the way that Diperri produced Engine of Hell—like the placement of microphones on Rundle’s acoustic guitar, and how they catch the scraping sound her fingers make across the strings while she shifts between chords.
On “The Company,” there is this feeling, though, that you are in the room with Rundle, sitting next to her while she plays and sings—from the way the song is presented, there is no indication that she’s singing directly into a microphone, but is just singing and playing out, into the room, with the microphones around her picking up the natural reverberations of the sound. Engine of Hell is, at its core, an incredibly human album, but there is something very honest and raw about a small, beautiful, haunting moment like that.
Rundle refers to the album’s production and recording as the most “punk” thing she could have done—songs were recorded in as few takes as possible, and there were no overdubs to correct any mistakes made. In her admiration for Sibyl Baier’s Colour Green, Rundle mentions where it sounds like the guitar might be out of tune, but the moment passes, “Or (Baier) will do this little vocal thing that’s not planned, or it doesn’t sound planned—it’s just so touching. It really moves me, and gave me the bravery to say that it’s okay for me to do that too, and portray an honest an flawed version of myself.”
With an album like Engine of Hell, musically hushed and arriving with a compelling, personal backstory about its creation—it should not come as a surprise to learn just how important Rundle’s lyrics are throughout. Unflinching and brutal how personal and honest she gets, there is an intelligence and hyper-literate nature to them that, under different musical circumstances, might have gotten lost. But here, there are countless moments where Rundle’s phrase turns will stop you in your tracks.
The biblical, or religious allusions that are woven throughout Engine of Hell are perhaps the most surprising. “Blooms of Oblivion” opens with Rundle uttering, “Judas, come close to me, visit in visions”; later, on the spiraling, folksy “Razor’s Edge,” there are even more—“Lay around Lazarus, roll the stone—that I might feel just enough for both of us,” “I’ll be spinning like the girl in glass slippers at the last supper,” and “Play it down Magdalena—no one knows that you’ve come undone.”
It is, as one might anticipate, Rundle’s personal reflections that are the most harrowing to hear, and most memorable—“Handing down a fistful of sorries you will never say,” from “Blooms of Oblivion” is one of the earliest single phrases that stood out; but it’s large portions of lyrics from both “The Company,” and “Razor’s Edge,” that resonate the loudest—“So loud, that the company I keep is just mine—it’s the center of my troubles,” she begins on “The Company.” “And white is the color of the noise it’s making, and why I drink myself to sleep.” Then, near the song’s conclusion, “The soul is so much brighter now, without you. The soul is so much lighter now, without you. My whole life—some dark night—is so much brighter now without you.”
And, in “Razor’s Edge,” a small, surprising bit of, albeit very dark, humor—“Spending all my money as the petty cash of youth runs out,” she sings in the opening line against the tumbling acoustic guitar strings.
“There’s no need to check the weather, as my winter’s never over.”
In the conversation with Echoes and Dust, Rundle is asked if there is any hope on Engine of Hell, or if it is “just nothingness,” and presumably without batting an eyelash, she responds by saying, “The nothingness—there is no real hopeful message or resolution on this album.”
Engine of Hell ends with the taught, menacing “In My Afterlife,” and if anything it is the stark realization that the pleading from “Return” has gone unanswered.
There is a disorienting otherworldliness to the lyrics on “In My Afterlife,” sung with a sneer while Rundle pounds out very dramatic piano chords—“I think that it’s cold, but I’m not sure if this is my body. I was robbed of my mask in some engine of hell,” which she follows with a lyric that is, without a doubt, a warning and a threat: “I have a feeling that I might be here awhile.”
And if the album begins with a song asking, “Where have you gone to? To return to me? To return again?,” it ends with the line, “And now we’re free.” And if there is any hope to be found in the nothingness that surrounds the album and its subject matters, it is in that line—“we’re free.” And in that freedom, there is the uncertainty that follows.
In the interviews for Engine of Hell, Rundle explains she and her ex-husband are on good terms, but that might not have always been the case. The album itself was written almost two years ago, and recorded at the end of 2020; enough time has elapsed before the albums’ release that Rundle, as a person and an artist, has continued to grow and develop, and presumably that growth has helped foster a healthier relationship with her former partner.
Engine of Hell is representative of a pivotal moment in time for Emma Ruth Rundle—“There’s permission through this for me to change,” she says in her conversation with mxdwn. “I don’t think you can ever escape or evade your story, your history, your trauma…there’s a way of recognizing and acknowledging and making some peace with those things and giving permission to have acceptance about it.” In the convergence of isolation, substance use, a mental health crisis, and a divorce, Rundle has made it out to the other side, and in telling her story honestly through this collection of songs, she does so as gracefully as she can, and refuses to make it appear, effortless—you can hear the emotional tumult in her words, and in her voice.
This is a fearless, breathtaking artistic statement that is unflinching in both its beauty and brutality—an album that, even in its quietest, most pensive moments, absolutely demands your attention and even after it is over, refuses to let you go.
1- I only say that I tell this story often because I have referenced it in a review of the most recent release from Squirrel Flower, because there is a sense of danger in the way the opening line of the first song is delivered; I also tell this story when I describe Emma ruth Rundle to folks who have never heard of her.
2- Before she started issuing albums under her own name, Rundle was associated with Marriages, Red Sparowes, and The Nocturnes. In the brief statement she made on social media regarding the end of her marriage, she also implied she was no longer ‘associated’ with any ‘acts.’ The quotes there are hers. Not mine.
3- This idea, of tension and release, and the balance between the two, is something I started including in writing once I began revisiting albums by The National, like Alligator, Boxer, and High Violet, for their 10th anniversaries, because the band often discusses that kind of musical dynamic.
4- Shout out to my therapist, who regularly talks about how you have to sit in your uncomfortable feelings and acknowledge them for what they are.
5- This album is great, by the way, and you should check it out if you have the means to.
6- I think that I also wrote about “musical moments” in the same Squirrel Flower review from earlier this year.